“Let’s take the kids to the fair this year.” That’s echoing across dinner tables from border to border this week as the Minnesota State Fair heads into its final weekend. It’s a pilgrimage that’s virtually required to maintain your Minnesota citizenship, much like knowing 10 ways to turn cream of mushroom soup into a tasty hotdish or mastering the stoic two-fingered steering wheel salute to greet passing cars in the country.
Russ and I are far past the kid-taking stage, and the granddaughter’s not ready for the trip, but the bug still bit us bad. Figuring that we’re close enough to our dotty second childhoods to qualify, we took off Saturday — along with exactly 180,565 of our neighbors — for the fabled fairgrounds in Falcon Heights.
Now, this is not an adventure that our sensible, nicely ripened demographic can undertake lightly. Unlike youngsters who dream of deep-fried junk-food-on-a-stick and roving bands of adolescents scenting friendly pheromones, we have far more elemental concerns: Traffic. Heartburn. Comfy shoes. Bathrooms.
Like every fairgoer, we well-seasoned funseekers arrive primed for thrills and chills. But a walk on the wild side no longer equates, for us, with the Haunted House blasting Prince tunes at landing-pattern decibels or rides dubbed Kamikaze, Stinger, Hurricane, Tornado or Viper.
No, our idea of excitement is finding parking close to the gate … and then locating our car when we’re ready to go home.
So we came up with an alternate plan. We’d park in our hotel’s ramp, then breeze to the fairgrounds on public transit. Great idea. Exact change in hand, we set off to get on board.
That’s when Russ and I learned something new about each other: Neither of us small-towners had ever actually taken a city bus, and we had no notion of how to go about it.
I’ve never felt quite so much like a rube as I did wandering downtown St. Paul in search of bus stops, then stopping random strangers for help. You don’t just hail passing buses. Who knew?
Finally a kindly centenarian pushing all her worldly possessions in a handcart advised us to locate the proper bus stop and wait for Bus No. 3. We eventually spotted it … only to be shooed off by the driver, who patiently explained (in short, simple words) that we wanted one that was heading toward the fairgrounds, not coming back downtown.
We crossed the street and peered in the opposite direction. Victory! The clearly marked conveyance stopped in front of us, and we climbed aboard.
But now what? Strains of that old Kingston Trio ballad ran through my head: “Well, did he ever return? No, he never returned, and his fate is still unlearned … poor ole Charlie. He may ride forever ’neath the streets of Boston. He’s the man who never returned.…”
It wasn’t hard to recognize when to get off. The State Fair is kind of obvious. But as our bus disgorged us, its somewhat psychic driver tapped me on the shoulder. “To get back, go to that bus stop ‘right over there’ ” — he gestured emphatically — “and stand there until you see another No. 3 coming in the right direction.” How do you suppose he knew?
We were buoyed along toward the gate on a chattering tide of 4-H clubbers, all eyes glued to their phones instead of watching out for obstacles like curbs and old people. We conscientiously claimed our senior citizen discounts at the ticket booth. Then our contingent swept as one into the thick of the quintessential Minnesota experience.
It’s always a remarkable moment — sensing tens of thousands to the right of you, tens of thousands to your left and a whole galaxy of temptations dead ahead. What’s most impressive, though, is the tenor of crowds at our Minnesota fair. Despite the mingling of every vintage and flavor of humanity, most everyone is smiling.
When the bobbing human current picks up speed down Judson Avenue, we simultaneously pick up our own pace. When the traffic slows, so do we — no pushing, shoving or slaloming in between. When we bump, we apologize. The only real hazards to our collective progress were baby strollers, eye-level umbrellas being carried by very short pedestrians and perhaps an occasional goat.
Why do millions of Minnesotans go to the fair over its glorious 12-day run? Maybe it’s those sweet goats. Or maybe it’s the chickens — triumphantly back after last year’s avian-flu ban. We watched a team from WCCO interview the proud young Poultry Prince and Princess and learned the real attraction of fowl competition: “When a chicken steps on you,” our sweet young prince told the reporter, “it’s a lot better than a cow.”
For most of us, though, the real attraction wafts over the grounds like an intoxicating fog — the unique aroma of sizzling grills and deep-fryers and the kinds of food no reasonable adult would ever eat anywhere else.
Wise even beyond our years, we resisted the spicy gator bites and gumbo frites, along with the candied bacon donut sliders and bacon ice cream, SPAM sushi, deep-fried nachos supreme, Indian paneer-on-a-spear and skewers of ominous bang-bang chicken. Instead, we concentrated on the classics: cheese curds sold by the kilo, 18-inch hand-dipped corn dogs and the most exotic of our decidedly mainstream tastes, frozen Key lime pie to eat like a Popsicle. And we even came up with a sure-fire new hit for next year — Rolaids-on-a-stick.
We missed that nitro-brewed coffee that had everyone talking but had no trouble finding alternate refreshments — liters of Diet Coke and spring water, as well as 32-ounce pails of fresh-squeezed lemonade. These inspired our afternoon rhythm: Coke first, then the 30-woman line for the restroom; lemonade next, then another bathroom queue; and so on. Earnest young traffic directors kept us moving smartly in the cavernous, yet crowded restrooms: “Twenty-four is open! Seven is free! You … take No. 14.”
We sampled Minnesota-grown apples, watched a beekeeper brag up his tiny livestock, lingered by the children’s veggie races and observed proud 4-Hers lead sleek cattle before the judges.
I put my foot down to stepping inside the Monarch butterfly house — fluttering just creeps me out. Too, we passed on the polka bands for weary senior citizens — our kind of old-time music leans more toward Led Zeppelin — but sat for a spell to hear the caterwauling of 50 singers performing outdoor karaoke in unison down by the tractor alley.
Finally, we soared over the grounds on the Sky Glider, the aerial tram that swings 40 feet above the parade of high school marching bands and convertibles carrying sundry queens, spinning Ferris wheels and the carousel and swooping through clouds of the signature perfume of the state fair — barbecue smoke and the scent of impending rain, seasoned with just the right hint of fresh manure.
We’ll be back, of course, just as soon as we have an ambulating grandchild to keep up with. Meanwhile, how could we face her back at home without a souvenir? That’s how we came to muscle a 3-foot inflated Hello Kitty back onto our bus. We ignored the curious and admiring glances of fellow riders who undoubtedly assumed Russ had won it in a game of skill and chance.
Nope. With age does come some wisdom. We stopped at the booth next to the gate, and we paid cash.